GLENDALE and MESA, Ariz. — There was a sense of closure among baseball fans all around the Cactus League over the weekend as small groups still showed up at empty ballparks simply to salvage a tiny shred of anything baseball-related from their trips to Arizona.
There were no games because of the coronavirus pandemic so many fans made the best of it with a peek into the front gate, or a selfie in front of an iconic part of the stadium, all while the phrase “social distancing” was bandied about.
People kept their distance. Elbow bumps over handshakes were prevalent.
At Peoria Sports Complex, home to the Padres and Mariners, 2020 spring-training T-shirts were being sold at half-price. The same offloading was happening at Goodyear Ballpark, home to the Reds and Indians.
At Sloan Park in Mesa, regulars that tailgate along the player walk from the Cubs’ clubhouse to the stadium had one more get-together behind home plate on the first-base side, grilling sausages and slinging thin-crust pepperoni pies from a mini pizza oven.
Broadcaster Joe Buck provided the soundtrack, with his call from Game 7 of the 2016 World Series on a television operated by a generator. Dexter Fowler’s leadoff home run sent up a cheer at noon on a Saturday in March 2020.
At Camelback Ranch in Glendale, White Sox fan Paul Lathrop walked up to the front gate in the morning to get a peek inside along with his longtime friend, Cubs fan Clair Wingard. Both men, age 69, took long flights to get to the Phoenix area, Lathrop from Delaware, Wingard from Chicago.
Lathrop pulled up the sleeve of his White Sox polo shirt to reveal a Sox tattoo on his left arm. He was festive. He was talkative. A 20-year survivor of throat cancer, Lathrop found out recently that he now has prostate cancer. When doctors operated, a cancerous growth also was removed from his bladder.
Lathrop said he understands the risks by being outside, even around small numbers of people, as the pandemic grows.
“It might be the last time we go to anything together,” Lathrop said while nodding toward Wingard, revealing he will have another procedure for anomalous cells on April 25.
Lathrop not only had tickets to this weekend’s canceled games in Arizona, he also had tickets to the White Sox game on April 29, 2015, at Baltimore when fans were not allowed into Camden Yards because of rioting in the area in previous days. He disputes the concept of bad luck. He says bad luck would have been to never have held those tickets in the first place.
At Mesa, a white “Steve’s Dream” pop-up tent provided shade to much of the tailgate. Mike Berry was there with a gathering of about 30 fans, half of whom had flown in for games now called off.
Berry started “Steve’s Dream” in honor of son Steve, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 24 from pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac around the heart.
While the goal of “Steve’s Dream” is to never take family bonds for granted, the charity gives away eight seats to every Cubs home game in the spring. The seats are mere rows behind the Cubs’ dugout, near the on-deck circle. Berry is especially pleased when the tickets go to fathers with their sons.
On Saturday, Berry was passing out baseballs wrapped in plastic to any kids who wandered past knowing it could be another 350 days before he sees his baseball friends again.
“Why get depressed?” said Berry, a native of Des Plaines, who now lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Just come out here and have one big hurrah. We are all a tailgating family.”
Cubs fan Pat Canty, a native of the South Side of Chicago, who now lives in Chandler, Arizona, had the idea of showing Game 7 at the tailgate.
“We had to do something for the last day,” said Ron Benhoff, a Kenosha, Wisconsin, native who lives in the Phoenix suburb of Ahwatukee. “It’s closure.”
Canty recognized the optics of a gathering while social interaction was being curtailed, but figured watching Game 7 with friends might be the last baseball he gets in a group setting for a long time.
“It was either a stroke of brilliance or a stroke of stupidity, while getting one last group of people together, you know?” Canty said.
It wasn’t long before Lathrop walked past the tailgate with Wingard, holding his hand over his heart, playfully hiding the Sox logo on his shirt.
Lathrop got to see his team’s closed ballpark in the morning and the friends drove 30 miles to the other side of the Phoenix area so Wingard could see his team’s complex in the afternoon.
With absolutely no baseball on the schedule, the pair had a baseball day anyway.
It didn’t take Lathrop long to strike up a conversation with the group at the tailgate. No rivals. Just baseball fans commiserating about the uncertain season ahead.
“This is our year,” Lathrop said in private, excitement in his voice. “So I have to survive at least until the end of the year.”